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Obama's Unending Wars
By Ed Hagerty (reviewer)
Obama's Unending Wars: Fronting the Foreign Policy of the Permanent Warfare State
by Jeremy Kuzmarov
(Clarity Press, Inc. 2019)
It would difficult to believe that anyone who lived through the Vietnam Era, or especially anyone who served during that time, would find it startling to suddenly learn that "money has corrupted politics and perverted American Foreign Policy" (16). In Obama's Unending Wars, Jeremy Kuzmarov presents a decidedly dark and pessimistic view of the historical record of US politicians who have guided our foreign policy, starting with Woodrow Wilson, whose hypnotic manipulation of public opinion allowed him to pursue imperialist goals under the guise of a "moral crusade" (34). Wilson is not Kuzmarov's intended target in this book, however; instead, the focus is on Wilson's spiritual and intellectual heir, Barak Obama.
Kuzmarov's main thesis, clearly presented early in the book, is that Obama artfully pulled the wool over the eyes of American voters by "using identity politics and liberal guilt about race" to create a narrative that misled and "hypnotized liberals into believing he was pragmatic and a do-gooder even as he escalated bombing, drone strikes, and secret wars" (16). Kuzmarov's critical analysis contends that Obama manipulated foreign policy actions and decisions in such a way as to financially favor his supporters and donors. Again, many readers will find it unsurprising that war generally tends to make the rich richer, although Obama was able to spin a story using "intellectual sophistication and guile" (16) that made it acceptable to liberals.
Although he generally misses the opportunity to address it, Kuzmarov's contentions raise a larger issue about the way our government functions, and that issue far exceeds the role Obama played over the eight years of his presidency. The issues he raises bring into question the entire historical basis of our foreign policy goals and how we achieve them. The sins of Obama as described by Kuzmarov are not his alone. Our nation's foreign policies and actions have been marred for many decades by miscalculation and misinterpretation, and the problem persists. If there is any surprise to be discovered, it lies in the fact that a liberal Democrat like Obama can be tarred with the same brush as the war-mongering, hawkish, Republicans typically blamed for advancing the cause of the military-industrial complex, among other various and sundry misdeeds.
If exposing Obama's duplicity is a major achievement of this book, one must still examine the evidence Kuzmarov utilizes to make his case. First, it is clear that he is not much interested in exploring and evaluating sources that might present an alternative or more balanced view. As a Ph.D. trained at Brandeis, it is somewhat puzzling that the overall tone of the work leans more toward exposing rather than toward a balanced historical treatment. In that regard, the scholarship and vigor of the research seems weak and suspect. At the risk of being somewhat crass, one might view the methodology as akin to throwing something against the wall to see what sticks. If, for example, Obama used the guise of a "humanitarian imperative" (203) to justify his aggressive, imperialistic aims, any room for misinterpretation of his actions is not given due consideration. Instead, Kuzmarov routinely decides emphatically in favor of the aggrieved, as when he writes that the first evidence of Russian troop involvement in Ukraine was in July 2014, "well after the war had broken out, meaning it was predominantly reactive" [italics mine] (234). Kuzmarov excuses the Russians and finds them largely blameless, alleging they took few steps to instigate unrest in Ukraine. Satellite imagery confirmed by US State Department accounts, however, indicates that Russian tanks had crossed the border around June 11, and evidence reveals that unmarked Russian tanks were engaged in fighting around that time. Kuzmarov then criticizes the Ukrainian government's attempts to neutralize the militants and prevent the secession of much of the eastern portion of their country, accusing the government and its "Neo-Nazi" (235) militias of war crimes.
He eschews mention of any current European Court of Human Relations cases brought by Ukrainian POWs alleging torture by separatist militiamen. Obama, "swayed by a slick lobbying campaign" (234), is castigated for providing security assistance to Ukraine, a nation whose independence we recognized in 1991, and whose transition to democracy has been widely supported in an effort to bring the country fully into the Western sphere of influence and out of Russia's. Rightly or wrongly, that is our goal. Perhaps we'd be better served to mind our own business and try not to poke the Russians in the eye by enticing another former Soviet state into the ranks of NATO, but Kuzmarov does not make that case, asserting only that whatever Obama did with the situation he inherited was misguided, even though its historical roots far predate his presidency.
Despite the one-sided viewpoint, Kuzmarov reveals a number of connections between Obama's actions and the potential benefits to his political backers that are undoubtedly true. What is less clear is whether his motivation for taking those actions was related more to it being in the best interests of US national security, or whether it was influenced primarily by mercenary motives designed to benefit his supporters. In either case, the actions were typically disguised in duplicitous Wilsonian fashion as being undertaken to further self-determination and prevent humanitarian abuses. Kuzmarov cites Obama's ability "to provide a liberal and humanitarian veneer to policies that were consistent with those of past imperial statesmen and to maintain his reputation despite presiding over horrendous disasters" (27).
To set the stage for his case against Obama's foreign policy decisions, Kuzmarov first traces the development of Obama's political brand. He alleges falsehoods from Obama's version of his youth and early political life; his embrace of the "Chicago Way" (69) that is marked by cronyism and political favoritism; and his abandonment of African-Americans who saw unemployment reach a twenty-seven-year high and median income fall by 10.9 percent during his presidency. Kuzmarov's evidence is strongest when supported by figures, such as when he notes that Obama's African policies encouraged private sector investments and saw an increase from $43.6 to $57 billion from 2009 to 2011. However, the motives for that are immediately questioned, and Kuzmarov alleges that the real function of development assistance there was to "subsidize US businesses including top political donors—the Chicago Way" (92). Likewise, attempts to stem the Ebola virus outbreak in Africa are seen merely as an excuse to mirror post colonialist actions by "imposing militarization and control in the name of public health" (92-93).
Kuzmarov begins his scathing critique of Obama's foreign policy actions with Sub-Saharan Africa before turning his attention to Libya. There Obama is accused of behaving like a Black man serving "the interests of the white masters" who apparently were still smarting all those years after Qaddafi ignominiously kicked them out in 1969. Greedy corporate demons licked their lips as the Obama Administration put forth trumped up charges to justify intervention.
Kuzmarov next discusses Obama's use of drone technology, citing figures that show he launched 563 drone strikes during his administration, which was a ten-fold increase over Bush's 57 and does not include more than 1,000 strikes in Afganistan just between 2012 and 2018. He does not tell us what those strikes accomplished or how many American or Coalition lives were saved, only that it is alleged that over 1,000 civilians were killed as a result.
In the case of US citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki, who was killed in Yemen, Kuzmarov asserts the justification was flawed because that radical cleric was merely inciting others to violence against the US as a reaction to the violence associated with US wars in the Middle East. Obama made a comparison to SWAT neutralizing a sniper shooting at an innocent crowd. Kuzmarov, in turn, makes the ludicrous comment that police have to get a warrant before deploying SWAT and arresting someone!
And so it goes: the Afghan surge, Iraq, the Asia pivot, Russia and the new Cold War, the Arab Spring, Cuba, and Latin America all receive much the same treatment. Cuban policy, for example, was "driven by real-politik" wherein capitalist forces in the US sought access "to new markets" (303). Like the "still angry after all those years" instigators of Obama's Libyan intervention, others of that ilk likely sought to avenge Kennedy's 1961 failed Bay of Pigs invasion.
Kuzmarov's brief concluding chapter seems almost like an afterthought, as though he was struggling at that point to make some sense of the purpose of his diatribe against Obama. He ineffectually attempts to marshall support from political economist Seymore Melman, former US Representative Jim Wright (D-TX), and Deepak Chopra, vaguely advising us only to embrace their vision of peace and "to articulate a constructive peace agenda capable of mobilizing thousands and thousands of people" (322).
Two appendices round out the work. One is a 1983 article written when Obama was a student at Columbia; the second is a real mud-slinger that alleges homosexual behavior, drug use, and even hints at murder.
In the end, the usefulness of the book is that it opens the door for further scholarly inquiry about many of the alleged misdeeds attributed to Obama, and it drives home the fact that it's simple to rally opposition to perceived oafs spouting cowboy diplomacy, but not so easy to see through the machinations of a sly fox like Obama. Readers should be aware that the book is generally unbalanced at best and downright injudicious at its worst, so it needs to be digested with a grain of salt. Again, what remains totally unclear in Kuzmarov's presentation of these events is what our nation's foreign policy goals were, why we took that course of action, and what we hoped to achieve by doing so. Satisfying the warmongers and lining the pockets of corporate America seems to be the only suggested answers in the book. I don't mean to suggest we're always right with our foreign policy decisions, or even mostly right, just that we might be right some of the time. Kuzmarov apparently thinks not. Those prone to embrace conspiracy theories will find fodder here for a decade of stimulation. Those looking for a balanced, scholarly evaluation of the Obama presidency will want to look elsewhere.
Ed Hagerty is a former USAF member and reserve officer who served with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI). He received the doctorate in History from Temple University and is the author of a history of OSI published by that organization and of Collis' Zouaves, a history of a Civil War regiment published by LSU Press. He is the book review editor for the Journal of Strategic Security.